Are Seattle’s Wide Receivers Really Just Appetizers?

Doug Baldwin really didn't like Cris Carter's appetizer remarks.

There’s been a lot of back and forth – well, really just forth – between Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin and Hall of Fame wideout Cris Carter about remarks Carter made when he said the Seahawks' receivers were “pedestrian” and “appetizers.”

Essentially, Cris Carter didn’t like what he was seeing from Seattle’s wideouts, and blamed some of Russell Wilson’s late-season struggles on those Seahawks’ receivers. Doug Baldwin didn’t like that, and made that clear in multiple post-game interviews, noting that Carter should “stick to playing football because [his] analytical skills aren’t up to par yet.”

You know who has analytical skills? Us. numberFire.

Baldwin claimed in one post-game Super Bowl interview (eloquently titled “SHOTS FIRED!!!” on YouTube) that the Seahawks had the most efficient receiving corp in the NFL.

In typical "I'm going to do this analysis even though it's a ridiculous storyline in the NFL" fashion, I've done the actual work to see whether or not Baldwin's statement is true.

Efficiency Defined

As most of you know, we use a metric at numberFire called Net Expected Points (NEP). In essence, NEP measures the amount of real points – based on field position and down and distance – a player adds for his team, stemming from what should happen on the field during that situation. In other words, there’s an expected point value during a particular game situation, and if a player helps his team get to a better expected point value on the next play, he’s increased his NEP.

For more on the subject, check out our glossary.

Net Expected Points is pretty clear for quarterbacks and running backs, especially the former. But with receivers, not only do they rely on their passers so heavily, but there are many ways to judge a pass-catcher's performance.

For instance, do you look at his points added on all targets (Target NEP)? Or do you just see how the receiver performed on catches only (Reception NEP)?

You can see why Target NEP would be an important statistic, as things like catch rate and drops start to matter more. However, it also can benefit receivers who have better quarterbacks, as they’re not consistently catching passes that hit the ground four feet in front of them. That, and low volume can yield less NEP.

On the flip side, only looking at receptions can be a little tough, too, as highly targeted players get more help. To put this another way, even if a guy has a horrible catch rate, if he sees 200 targets in a season, he’ll more than likely still catch over 100 passes. And if you’re only measuring those 100 catches, how is that fair to a player on a run-first team?

The solution to these problems? Reception NEP per target. With this, you’re looking at the points added by a receiver on all of his catches, but dividing that by his volume. Boom. Efficiency.

Clearly low-targeted players with one or two huge catches will score high within this metric. So for the study below, I’ll look only at wide receivers who had at least 35 targets this year. For the Seahawks, that will include Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse, and Golden Tate.

Seattle’s Receivers vs. The League

There were 120 wide receivers with 35 or more targets this season, and their Reception NEP per target scores ranged from one Kenny (Britt, with a 0.17 Reception NEP per target) to another Kenny (Stills, 1.16).

How did the Seahawks’ receivers do?

First, let’s look at the man who’s done the trash talking, Doug Baldwin. Baldwin’s been a favorite on numberFire this year, as his efficiency has been very underrated. In fact, only Kenny Stills, Marvin Jones and Jerricho Cotchery were more efficient this season than Baldwin, which makes sense considering what those players did on the field (deep balls and touchdowns galore). Baldwin had a Reception NEP per target of 0.95, while Cotchery’s was 0.98, Jones’ 1.02 and Stills’ 1.16.

And just four spots down the list sits Jermaine Kearse, who had a Reception NEP per target in 2013 of 0.93. The players sitting between Kearse and Baldwin were Justin Hunter, Anquan Boldin and Keenan Allen.

So two of the big three receivers in Seattle ranked in the top eight in Reception NEP per target, a measure of wide receiver efficiency. Maybe Baldwin’s on to something here…

Where’s Golden Tate, you ask? Well, he’s a bit further down the list, but he still had a Reception NEP per target of 0.76, which ranked 32nd in the NFL during the regular season.

That means all three relevant Seattle receivers ranked in the top 32 in Reception NEP per target this past year. Denver, Green Bay, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Tennessee each had multiple players hit the top 32 as well. But they only had two receivers reach the mark, whereas Seattle had three.

In fact, the only other team in the NFL with three wide receivers ranking as high as Seattle’s in efficiency was New Orleans. Kenny Stills, Robert Meachem and Marques Colston each had Reception NEP per target averages that were 0.82 or higher. Colston ranked 22nd, Meachem 14th and Stills 1st. And yes, that’s not factoring in Jimmy Graham, who had an efficiency score of 0.82.

This shouldn’t be all that surprising given the fact that we’re looking at a metric that will often favor players who did a whole lot with a little. Look at Robert Meachem as the perfect example here, as he's Drew Brees' deep ball specialist. But that’s what efficiency is, right? That’s what Doug Baldwin said the Seahawks receiver were.

And Doug Baldwin was right.

Baldwin is the Victor

It appears that Cris Carter was wrong. Really wrong. Though there will always be the argument that Russell Wilson helped create that high efficiency, we can’t assume that a quarterback will automatically make his receivers that effective on the football field.

If the Seahawks’ receivers were indeed pedestrian this year, I’d have a hard time believing – though I do love me some Russell Wilson – that Seattle’s quarterback could, alone, make this team a top-five passing unit when adjusting for strength of schedule. I’d have a hard time comprehending how a player in his second year, despite potentially being the best young gunslinger we’ve ever seen, could be a top 10 passer on his own.

The wide receivers helped. And even if they weren’t the best from an efficiency standpoint, they sure were an underrated bunch who shouldn’t have received such harsh criticism.